George Washington Papers

From George Washington to James McHenry, 16 September 1798

To James McHenry

Private & confidential

My dear Sir,Mount Vernon 16th Sepr 1798.

Your confidential letter—dated Trenton the 10th Instant, with its enclosures, have been duly received.

The latter are returned. The contents of them have filled my mind with much disquietude & embarrassment; but it is impossible for me to make any move, in consequence, at this time, from the want of Official ground; without betraying your confidential communication.1

I can perceive pretty clearly however, that the matter is, or very soon will be brought, to the alternative of submitting to the Presidents forgetfulness of what I considered a compact, or condition of acceptance of the Appointment with which he was pleased to honor me, or, to return him my Commission. And as that compact was ultimately, and at the time, declared to him through you, in your letter written from this place, and the strong part of it inserted after it was first drawn, at my request to avoid mis-conception, I conceive I have a right, and accordingly ask, to be furnished with a copy of it.2

You will recollect too, that my acceptance being conditional, I requested you to take the Commission back, that it might be restored—or annulled—according to the Presidents determination to accept, or reject, the terms on which I had offered to serve; and that, but for your assuring me, that it would make no difference whether I retained or returned it and conceiving that the latter might be considered as an evidence of distrust it would have been done. Subsequent events, evince that, it would have been a measure of utility for though the case in principle is the same—yet such a memento of the fact could not so easily have been forgotten or got over.

After the declaration in the Presidents letter to you, of Augt the 29th (which is also accompanied with other sentiments of an alarming nature) and his avowed readiness to take the responsibility of the measure upon himself, it is not probable that there will be any departure from the resolution he has adopted; but I should be glad, notwithstanding to know the result of the Representation made by the Secretaries, as soon as it comes to hand. And, if there is no impropriety in the request, to be gratified with a sight of the Memorial also.3 I am always, with much sincerity, Your Affectionate Servant

Go: Washington

P.S. If you see no impropriety in the measure, & do not object to it, it would be satisfactory to me to receive a copy of the Powers, or Instructions from the President under which you acted when here.4

ALS, LNT: George and Katherine Davis Collection; ALS (letterpress copy), DLC:GW.

1For the enclosures, see notes 1 and 2 to McHenry’s letter of 10 September.

2McHenry arrived at Mount Vernon on 11 July to solicit GW’s acceptance of the commission of lieutenant general and commander in chief of the army. McHenry wrote to John Adams the next day: “I arrived here yesterday evening and delivered your letter [of 7 July] to the General. I have had much conversation with him, and have now the pleasure to inform you, that I expect to bring you his acceptance of the appointment with the proviso that he is not to be called into activity till such time as in your opinion circumstances may render his presence with the army indispensible. He appears to me to have maturely studied the vast consequence of the steps that have been taken, and the importance of maintaining at every hazard the ground we have assumed. This I can perceive has had its full share of influence in determining him to give up the happiness he enjoys in these charming shades.” Later in the letter McHenry wrote that he would “obtain from him the names of the persons he considers the best qualified for his confidential officers and without whom I think he would not serve” (MHi: Adams Papers). McHenry enclosed a copy of this letter in his letter to GW of 26 October.

3John Adams in his letter to McHenry of 29 Aug. declared his firm intention to rank Knox first and Hamilton last among the major generals. See GW to Hamilton 14 July, n.5, for a quotation from and description of Adams’s letter.

McHenry wrote GW on 10 Sept. enclosing Adams’s letter and informing GW that members of the cabinet were drafting a memorial to the president protesting the demotion of Hamilton. On 19 Sept. he wrote GW that it had been decided that Wolcott alone should sign the memorial. The memorial, dated 17 Sept., is in MHi: Adams Papers and is printed in part in Syrett, Hamilton Papers, description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends 22:10–14.

4McHenry on 26 Oct. supplied GW with a copy of Adams’s instructions, contained in the president’s letter to McHenry of 6 July 1798: “It is my desire that you embrace the first opportunity to sett out on your Journey to Mount Vernon, and wait on general Washington with the Commission of Lt General and Commander in Chief of the armies of the United states, which by the advice and consent of the Senate has been signed by me. The reasons and motives which prevailed with me, to Venture on such a Step as the nomination of this great and illustrious character whose Voluntary resignation alone occasioned my introduction to the office I now hold were too numerous to be detailed in this Letter, and are too obvious and important to escape the observation of any part of America or Europe; but as it is a movement of great delicacy, it will require all your address to communicate the Subject in a manner, that Shall be unoffensive to his feelings, and consistent with all the respect that is due from me to him. If the General Should decline the appointment all the world will be Silent, and respectfully acquiesce—If he Should accept all the world except the Enemies of this Country will rejoice—If he should come to no decisive determination, but take the Subject into consideration I Shall not appoint any other General untill his conclusion is known. His advice in the formation of a List of officers would be extremely desireable to me—The names of Lincoln, Morgan, Knox, Hamilton, Gates Pinckney, Lee, Carrington, Hand Mughlenburgh Dayton Burr, Brooks, Cobb, Smith, may be mentioned to him and any others that occur to you; particularly I wish to have his opinion of the Man, most suitable for Inspector General & Adjutant General & Quarter Master General—his opinion on all subjects must have great Weight, and I wish you to obtain from him, as much of his reflections upon the times and service as you can” (MHi: Adams Papers).

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